The Chemistry Kit

Safety is a good thing, but have we gone too far? One of the casualties of the modern obsession with safety is the chemistry kit, an educational toy that helped generations of children to discover the fun of chemistry.

First Experiments

The first chemistry kits were developed in the early 19th century to teach chemistry to medical students and teachers. As many students came to university without knowledge of basic chemistry, the kits manufactured by companies such as John J. Griffin and Sons allowed them to learn through experiments. These kits came with a selection of chemicals and the basic tools, plus a guide on how to perform these experiments. This allowed the students to understand concepts such as pH and the impact that these might have on their patients.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the manufacturers of these kits realized that there was another potential set of customers for their kits: children who were cautious about chemistry. So, companies such as Griffin and the A.C. Gilbert Company (who later created the Erector set engineering toy) started to sell kits that were aimed at these younger users that focussed on the more interesting aspects of chemistry: explosions and stinky stuff.

The Gilbert Master chemistry set, sold in the 1930s. The set contained poisonous chemicals such as Potassium Nitrate / Hakes.

These kits came with instructions on how to perform interesting experiments, such as how to make an explosive mixture. Of course, there were warnings about safety, such as a warning not to make too much of the mixture.

A guide to making an explosive mixture. From an early 20th century Gilbert chemistry kit manual. / Jitterbuzz

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated the power of the atom, the manufacturers were quick to bring out kits that demonstrated the basics of atomic power. In 1950, Gilbert came out with the U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory, which included a sample of Uranium bearing ore to use as a source of radiation, a cloud chamber that let you see this radiation and a Geiger counter.

The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory kit, which included a sample of radioactive ore. / Wikipedia

Designed with the assistance of MIT, the kit taught the basics of radiation. Among the experiments that the kit included was a game of hunt the isotope, where the user could hide the ore in a room, and another could use the Geiger counter to find it.

This kit was not popular, however, as it cost a hefty $49.50, the equivalent of over $500 today. There were also serious concerns about safety, so only a few thousand were sold. Because it is so rare, this kit is now very collectible, selling for over $15000 in good condition.

Chemical Hijinks

Although the fad of radioactive kits was done by the mid-1950s, other types of chemistry kits were still popular. A typical kit would contain a variety of chemicals, including poisonous ones such as copper sulfate and sodium thiocyanide. These kits followed the spirit of the age: with science we would solve the problems of the world, feeding the hungry and harnessing the power of nature.

A 1950s chemistry set / CraftyBeaver on Flickr

By the late 1960s, that had begun to change. People were thinking more about the downsides of science and the consequences of poorly thought-out experiments. Science had brought us Thalidomide and the threat of atomic war, and the excessive use of chemical fertilizers threatened a food apocalypse. While science was still a force for progress, people wanted limits on it and a more thoughtful approach. This new approach forced the makers of chemistry kits to rethink their approach. They included a smaller range of chemicals, instead focussing on interesting experiments and tasks like finding pollution.

A 1970s chemistry kit / Worthpoint

By the 1980s, concerns over the safety of the chemicals included with these kits had reached an intense level as most of them could be dangerous if eaten. This lead to the development of chemistry kits that didn’t include any actual chemicals. This kit included test tubes, goggles, funnels and other basic chemistry tools, but no actual chemicals to experiment with. Instead, you used everyday things such as cleaners, vinegar, and others to perform experiments.

The Chemistry 60 kit, which does not include any chemicals / Amazon

Can you be too safe?

Is this a step too far for safety? Perhaps, but don’t forget that this comes in the wake of incidents like a CSI fingerprinting toy kit that allegedly had asbestos in the fingerprint powder. I remember using a kit in the 1970s that included things like Copper Sulfate, a chemical that can be fatal. I didn’t eat it, and as far as I know, I never managed to poison myself.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that I would be comfortable letting kids use it without supervision, though. There has to be a balance between safety and the benefits of experience.

Humans learn by experience. You learn more about chemistry by seeing an interesting reaction happen than by reading any book, and these chemical-free kits limit the things that you can do. Not that there isn’t interesting chemistry happening in the kitchen, but you need access to a wider range of chemicals to do some of the really interesting stuff.

Fortunately, there are places that will still sell you some of the interesting stuff. One chemistry teacher created a Kickstarter for the Heirloom Chemistry Set, which reproduces one of the classic chemistry kits we featured above.

More Information

The Chemistry Set GenerationChemistry World, The Royal Society of Chemistry. An excellent history of the chemistry set.

My experience with Gilbert Science SetsJitterbuzz. A memoir of chemistry sets, and a wonderful resource to read the instructions that came with these kits.

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